Swiss lower house refuses to vote on US bank deal
Geneva: Swiss lawmakers refused to bow on Tuesday to pressure to vote on a deal with the United States exposing US tax dodgers with assets in Swiss banks, risking a clash with Washington just as G8 leaders vow to crack down on secrecy.
A stormy session of the Swiss lower house, or National Council, refused for the second time to hold an emergency debate on the controversial "Lex USA" deal, which Washington has demanded must come into force by July 1.
The deal is seen as crucial if Swiss banks are to escape the threat of a raft of lawsuits in the United States, as well as being barred from the big and profitable American market.
But they could also fall foul of Swiss law.
Swiss banks are believed to hold accounts worth billions of dollars belonging to American citizens who have not declared these assets to US tax authorities.
With the global economic crisis having put tax havens into sharp focus -- notably at the G8 summit this week -- Switzerland has fought to defend its cherished principle of banking secrecy by giving ground in some areas but declining to allow the automatic handover of account details.
Under current international rules, the United States has to make a formal request for legal assistance concerning a specific individual tax-dodger, a procedure seen as cumbersome in Washington.
Under the take-it-or-leave-it deal proposed by the US side and approved by the Swiss government at the end of May, Swiss banking secrecy rules would be frozen for one year for American clients.
But parliamentary approval is required for the change, otherwise the banks risk finding themselves on the wrong side of Swiss law if they give US authorities the names.
There has been anger across the Swiss political spectrum because details of the agreement are not set to be revealed until after it comes into force.
A total of 126 members of the National Council refused to debate the deal, while 67 were in favour.
It is the second time that the lower house has slapped down efforts to win rapid parliamentary backing for the deal, which reportedly foresees massive fines for the banks in exchange for legal peace.
The move leaves the deal on a parliamentary knife-edge.
Switzerland`s upper house, the Council of States, approved it last week by 24 votes to 15.
In the wake of the lower house`s refusal, the Council of States was scheduled on Wednesday to hold a new vote, and rejection there would effectively stop the deal in its tracks.
If the upper house sticks to its earlier approval, however, the bill will be put to a conciliation commission, before a final vote Friday to decide its fate.
The banking sector has expressed support for the deal, saying that it wants to draw a line under an issue which has poisoned ties with the United States.